Partition Posts

An Interview with Daisy Rockwell, Author, Artist and a Hindi-Urdu Translator

This interview was first published on Bookwitty.com on 20 December 2016 ) 

Daisy Rockwell is an artist, writer and Hindi-Urdu translator living in the United States. Rockwell grew up in a family of artists in western Massachusetts. From 1992-2006, she made a detour into academia, from which she emerged with a PhD in South Asian literature, a book on the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk and a mild case of depression. Upendranath Ashk was a Hindi writer, based in Allahabad, who began publishing in pre-Independent India but soon, due to his irascible temperament chose to self-publish much of his later work. Daisy Rockwell met the Hindi writer on a few occasions in the 1990s and began translating his fiction with his permission. Unfortunately Ashk never saw Daisy Rockwell’s publications. Daisy Rockwell’s diligent dedication to the task shines through the quality of the English translations that were ultimately published. The translated literature is a pure delight to read; smooth and evocative of the early and mid-twentieth India they are set in.

Rockwell has written The Little Book of Terror, a volume of paintings and essays on the global war on terror (Foxhead Books, 2012), and her novel Taste was published by Foxhead Books in April 2014. Her translation of Ashk’s well-known novel about the evolution of a writer Girti Divarein was published by Penguin India as Falling Walls (2015), her collection of translations of selected stories by Ashk, Hats and Doctors ( 2013); and her new translation of Bhisham Sahni’s legendary novel about the partition of India, Tamas ( 2016).

An Interview with Daisy Rockwell, Author, Artist and a Hindi-Urdu Translator - Image 1
An Interview with Daisy Rockwell, Author, Artist and a Hindi-Urdu Translator - Image 2

How did you choose Hindi to be the language to master and translate from?

I wandered into Hindi in college and never really wandered out again. I loved learning languages and had studied French, Latin, ancient Greek, and German. I wanted something less familiar and happened to take a social sciences course with Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, who spoke of her life doing research in India, so I decided to sign up for Hindi. Translation was something one had to do anyway in graduate school, but I was fortunate to take a translation seminar with AK Ramanujan shortly before his death, and that illuminating experience has stayed with me always.

How do you select a text to translate?

It’s hard to say. Often a text chooses you, rather than vice versa. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about Upendranath Ashk, and always wanted to translate his work, though that project fell by the wayside. Eventually I took it up again because it wouldn’t let me go.

Do you have any basic guidelines that you follow while translating? For instance is it crucial to convey the authentic form of Hindi used in the language of origin or is it important to stress readability in the destination language?

What’s important to me is that the translation reads as well as the original, and that the reader in English can get the same feeling from it that the Hindi reader might (despite the vastly different reading contexts).

If the text you decide to work upon has been translated before into English, do you ever read it or do you like to approach your project with a fresh perspective?

I would never retranslate something that was already done well. I first check the existing translation against the Hindi in the opening chapter. If I decide to retranslate it, I keep the other translations at hand and consult with them, as though I were sitting among friends. Even if I think the previous translator did poorly, I recognize that he or she may see things in ways that would escape me, or know things I don’t know. Translation is a lonely business, and the other translators keep me company. I argue with them, listen to them, curse at them, and lean on them. Much of Hindi literature has not been translated, however, so retranslation is actually a rare luxury.

What has been the most exciting challenge you have encountered while translating Hindi?

Translation is almost always challenging, but rarely exciting.

What form of Hindi are you most comfortable with? Does it belong to a particular period of Hindi literature?

Because of Ashk and Bhisham Sahni, I have become really strong in 1930’s-40’s Punjabi-centric Hindi. I know all kinds of architectural details and articles of clothing and turns of phrase. Oddly, contemporary writing can be much more difficult for me.

Does translating Hindi while based in USA create any cultural challenges or is the immersion in your text so complete that your geographical location is immaterial?

It’s terribly challenging, but Twitter and social media have changed things dramatically. Much of the translating I’ve done would be difficult in India or Pakistan as well, without the reach of social media. There is much in novels of the earlier part of the 20th century that cannot be found in dictionaries nor in contemporary discourse. It’s not stuff most people know. I have to hunt high and low for definitions of some terms, and I depend greatly on my twitter friends for help in this regard.

Do you think it is “easier” to publish translations of Hindi literature as compared to when you first started in the 1990s? If yes, what are the possible reasons for this growing interest?

It is easier to publish them in India. In the US, I have yet to find a publisher for any of my translations. In India there is definitely a growing interest in translations and a growing respect for non-English language literatures. I am not sure how this happened, but I am thankful for it, and all signs point to continued growth in publication and interest.

How do you define “original text” as opposed to the “transcreations” authors such as Bhisham Sahni and Upendranath Ashk undertook with their own works when translating into English — a style not uncommon among many bilingual writers? Won’t the “revisions” to the text done later by the authors themselves be considered as “original” text? Which version do you opt to use in your translation?

I think bilingual authors should avoid translating their own work as much as possible. It seems most writers cannot withstand the temptation to alter the original while translating. They are the author, after all, so they have the right–but in doing so they deprive the English readers of the original text. At times, they alter the original beyond recognition, as in the sad case of Qurratulain Hyder’s translations River of Fire and Fireflies in the Mist. It is also often the case that bilingual people are rarely the same writer in two languages. Sahni translated Tamas himself, for example, but his English writing style was brittle and high-brow; though he knew English extremely well, he didn’t know the kind of English that Tamas would have been written in. The Hindi of Tamas is strikingly clear, succinct, and unadorned. His translation was unable to capture that. Hyder’s English was also perfect, but she clearly believed that the material must be presented differently to English readers and changed her works in sometimes very peculiar ways. And despite the fact that her English was perfect, I don’t believe that she wrote as well in English as she did in Urdu. It wasn’t a matter of being correct or not, but a matter of flow and style. In the case of the Sahni family, there was recognition that their father’s translation did not quite capture the spirit and they generously gave permission to retranslate. Sadly, Hyder’s heirs, following her wishes, refuse to grant permission to anyone to retranslate the books, so they remain off-limits to English readers, except for in their transcreated versions.

Your two creative pursuits — painting and translations can be exacting and very fulfilling. Do they in any way influence each other? For instance if you are tussling with a particularly challenging piece of translation does it get reflected in your painting and vice versa?

I’d like to think they’re connected, but if they are, the connection is not clear to me. I’ve occasionally illustrated translations or discussions of translation, but most of the time they are quite separate in my mind.

Is your preference only for literary fiction or would you try pulp fiction or even poetry in the future?

I’ve always been a high literature kind of gal. I never read pulp fiction (except for Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction!) at all. There are plenty of translators who could do that, at any rate, but classics, in particular, require a great deal of reflection and research, and that’s where my niche lies. I have been translating some poetry lately though, such as Shubham Shree’s Poetry Management, and Avinash Mishra’s untranslatable poems on Hindi orthography . I’ve also been translating some poetry by Mangalesh Dabral, which has not yet been published.

An Interview with Daisy Rockwell, Author, Artist and a Hindi-Urdu Translator - Image 3

 

Shobha Rao ” An Unrestored Woman”

Shobha Rao’s Unrestored Woman is a collection of short loosely interlinked stories first published by Virago Press and released in the Indian subcontinent by Hachette. The stories are classic in structure but the plot and treatment fairly unconventional. There are a range of stories inevitably dealing with Indian subcontinent during British Raj or at the time of Partition. With a South Asian name one approaches the collection assuming it would be of a particular style only to discover the writing is very modernist — bold, sharp, exploratory. It is no wonder then that T. C. Boyle included “Kavitha and Mustafa” in his anthology of Best of Ameican Fiction 2015. Although Shobha Rao is a writer of promise Unrestored Woman will forever remain her unfinished canvas in her yet-to-come oeuvre. Her justifiable admiration for Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s seminal work on Partition Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition is very evident but it is preventing Shobha Rao from making her stories her own.  Instead what comes through is the strong desire to assert her South Asian roots, her sensitivity to the issues and her attempt to engage with them but alas is unable to convey it with a passion. Aamer Hussein in his review of the book in The Independent is correct in saying that Shobha Rao is on “a firmer ground as a realist”. ( 6 March 2016 http://ind.pn/1sSJaWq )

Maybe the author is working on a full-length manuscript like a novel or historical fiction on women and Independence/ Partition of the subcontinent that will have more depth than the few sketches presented here.  Having said that Shobha Rao is a writer to keep on one’s literary radar.

Shobha Rao An Unrestored Woman and other stories Virago Press, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette India, 2016. Pb. pp. 244. Rs. 399 

3 June 2016 

Ashwin Sanghi, “The Sialkot Saga”

The-Sialkot-Saga

Bollywood actress, Kajol, and Ashwin Sanghi unveiling the book cover of “The Sialkot Saga” at Jaipur Literature Festival 2016.

Some animals hunt. Others hide. And a few hunt while they hide.

Ashwin Sanghi’s latest novel The Sialkot Saga will be released on 5 April 2016. It is a greatly anticipated thriller whose cover was unveiled with great fanfare by the Bollywood actress, Kajol Devgn, at Jaipur Literature Festival 2016.  The Sialkot Saga  is a retelling of modern Indian history through the lives of a Muslim Mumbai underworld don, Arbaaz Sheikh, and a Hindu Calcutta Marwari businessman, Arvind Bagadia. Basic premise being money matters, nothing else — it is a dhanda after all. As is the fashion nowadays in modern novels a family saga spread across at least two generations is a must and is evident in Sialkot Saga too. There are neat historical details beginning with Partition interspersed with brutal violence and unscrupulous plans to gain money. Politics, land deals, hawala, narcotics, films etc. Anything as long as there is a healthy profit margin to be made. There are some descriptions of violence particularly horrifying since they challenge the boundaries of ethics. But the acts described are so very plausible that the horror is compounded manifold. It strikes a sense of fear. Surprisingly the boldness of these criminal minds also makes one chuckle. 300-odd pages into the novel it begins to seem like a manual on the rise of corporate India. It becomes a little convoluted with its business descriptions. An account of the birth of companies like Reliance, Satyam, Infosys to the formidable place they hold today as the gems of Shining & Incredible India. The chorus of the opening pages soon to be forgotten as the plot builds is “Some animals hunt. Others hide. And a few hunt while they hide.” Attention does begin to flag but every writer writes from their strong point and being a successful businessman is one of Ashwin Sanghi’s strengths.

The second is his avatar as a modern mythographer. It is evident in the tenuous tale he weaves about the sanjeevani. It seems a bit convenient but once again it is Ashwin Sanghi’s forte to pull together myths and present them in a modern setting. It is his trademark. And one that his many readers will be waiting for. ( Till date he has sold over a million units of his previous books.)

Here is the link to the book trailer: https://youtu.be/1qv_tk5i9kM . It is a wonderfully edited movie clip but is not true to the book at all.

Undoubtedly Ashwin Sanghi’s “Sialkot Saga” is immensely readable for its tremendous insight into the Indian brand of businessmen. There is no word for their inventiveness in their greed for money and this is matched by the phenomenal storytelling of the novelist. It is quite remarkable. Setting his story in the historical backdrop of modern India proves that irrespective of political ideologies and government policies, money always wins. Having said that there is a lot of testosterone flowing through this book with the few women characters taking on fairly conventional roles. Even the breakaway character of Alisha as an example of the millennial generation does not quite live up to promise. I am not even going to nitpick about historical accuracy since it does not purport to be a historical novel. It is just a great story.

Read it!

Ashwin Sanghi The Sialkot Saga Westland, Chennai, 2016. Pb. pp. 584. Rs 350

31 March 2016

Susan Abulhawa, “The Blue between Sky and Water”

Blue between SkyThe Blue Between Sky and Water was my first introduction to Susan Abulhawa’s writing. It is about four generations of a family but focuses primarily on Nur a descendant born and brought up in American but moves to Palestine on work/love and ultimately settles there. At so many levels I enjoyed the novel. I liked it sweeping across generations while mapping the history of Palestine (as modern people know it to be), from the 1940s. This novel has a very strong sense of history to the present day of horrific living conditions, camps, ghettos, food tunnels, unnecessary violence and rape. To be put together in one place ostensibly as fiction but embedded in hard facts is what makes it so astounding. Accessing information ( most of it disturbing) about Palestine is fairly easily got on the Internet today — the frisking and innumerable checkpoints at the border, visiting Palestine by applying for a visa application at the Israeli embassy etc. In fact a few days ago I came across wearenotnumbers.org and discovered that Susan Abulhawa is a mentor in the programme. Till then I had heard of the food tunnels but to read a story about a runner in it who then lost his job came home very sharply to me when I began reading The Blue Between Sky and Water . So to get a novel that puts it all in one place is fascinating. It makes the ground reality accessible to a far wider circle than speaking only to the converted. Using the technique of telling a story of four generations of women is a trope familiar to contemporary fiction. It is useful since it is familiar to most contemporary readers so they are lulled into a comfort zone. Plus focusing on women/ communal matriarch structures that seem to operate in the camps, gives the novelist ample opportunity to be relaxed, comment, observe and analyse frankly and in a matter-of-fact manner. The observation about women and their relationships is fascinating. I read about these all the time and yet this is a favourite passage of mine in the book about the relationship between the social worker Nzinga responsible for looking after Nur when she was in foster care and Nur. “…the thing between them remained. It changed as they needed it to. Its parts were made of motherhood, sisterhood, womanhood, comradeship in struggle, political activism, mentorship, friendship.” (p. 163) Or the beekeeper’s widow who inspired other women to invest in themselves and their dwellings.

The creation of Khaled too fascinated me. The evolution from an imaginary friend to a son of the family who is then trapped in his body, so in a sense remains the observer/ non -participant he was at the very outset of the story. It gives a perspective to the story which would not be easy to introduce. Being his voice could not have been an easy literary technique to create as well.

Creating a piece of fiction about a relentless, unforgiving and senseless conflict could not have been easy for the author. Where do you start? Where do you end? So to see a neat dip into a slice of history without losing focus of the horrors of violence is probably what kept me spellbound.

In India, we have writers and readers obsessed with commemorating Partition through literature which throws up another series of questions since it is a violent moment from our past. But an emerging trend is to have writers commentating about places of “conflict” that exist in our country. Where it will take us I have no idea. A few days ago I was watching Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on The Daily Show. Many of the issues he raises in the conversation about violence, hatred, racism etc could be about any other land as well. Have you seen it? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/extended-interviews/sx47nw/exclusive-ta-nehisi-coates-extended-interview?utm=share_twitter Author and legal advocate Bryan Stevenson’s moving acceptance speech for Carnegie Medal in nonfiction for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau) makes the valid point that “literature has the ability to accomplish a narrative shift”. ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/awards-and-prizes/article/67546-is-this-the-greatest-book-award-acceptance-speech-ever.html ) Such writing is embedded deeply in the politics of the land and has to be but in The Blue Between Sky and Water the precision with which it comes across is so sharp. Even a first time comer to the conflict of Israel and Palestine will get a good sense of the troubles that ail the region.

I discussed Susan’s novel with her via email. We exchanged emails furiously. But here is a snippet from our correspondence that encapsulates the essence of such fiction. This quote is being shared with the author’s permission.  “…Maya Angelou once said: ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. I understand well how a collective trauma – Slavery, genocide, Nakba, Partition, etc. – can become a nation’s center of gravity, around and from which stories go and return. I believe that’s true in part because one’s greatest wound is often one’s greatest source of strength and power. I believe it’s why we become protective of everything cultural that belongs to that wound; why cultural appropriation, and narrative appropriation are such important issues relating to identity politics.”

Susan Abulhawa will be participating in literary festivals in 2015-16 in the Indian subcontinent — Jaipur Literature susan-abulhawaFestival, The Times of India LitFest, Hindu Lit for Life festival (Chennai), and Lahore. Here is an interview with the author from 2012 by the absolutely wonderful Marcia Lynx Qualey, Editor of Arabic Literature ( in English) http://www.full-stop.net/2012/04/16/interviews/marcia-lynx-qualey/susan-abulhawa/ .

The Blue Between Sky and Water is a shatteringly astounding novel. It is a must read.

Susan Abulhawa The Blue Between Sky and Water Bloomsbury Circus, London, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 292 Rs 499

28 July 2015

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

I was asked by Asian Age to  interview Kalyan Ray and review his new novel, No Country. The review-cum-interview was published in the Sunday edition of Asian Age on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://wwv.asianage.com/books/looking-neverland-504 . I am c&p the article below.) 

no countryThis was no country the world outside cared to know.
(Page 469, No Country)

No Country, Kalyan Ray’s multi-generational second novel, spans nearly 200 years, several continents. Beginning with the murder of a couple of South Asian origin in 1989, it jumps back in time, to Mullaghmore, Sligo County, Ireland, 1843, and three friends — Padraig Aherne, Bridget Shaughnessy and Brendan McCarthaigh — whose lives become inextricably linked with the birth of Padraig and Bridget’s illegitimate daughter, Maeve. Bridget dies in childbirth after Padraig has sailed off to India, later to become a successful timber merchant, and Maeve is cared for by her paternal grandmother, Maire, who on her deathbed hands Maeve to “Papa” Brendan. The potato famine is on; the starving Irish flee to America on overcrowded ships. Papa Brendan and Maeve survive a shipwreck and arrive on a farm in Canada. From here the story moves to two continents, told by various narrators with different points of view, coursing its way through Canada, India, Bangladesh, famines, refugees in America, Ireland, Odessa, Poland… The zooming about is dizzy, and often characters pop up only to disappear soon — we meet Armenians in Calcutta; Padraig Ahern marries Kalidasi; the Easter Uprising of 1916 is reported in the Bengali papers two weeks after it happened, and that reconnects Padraig to his motherland; Padraig’s son and grandson Robert Ahern are caught in the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919; Jewish pogroms begin just when Jakob Sztolberg, a Polish Jew, marries Maeve; India’s Partition. Dizzying. But it flows smoothly.

Ray attributes his ability to weave various voices in various places to being “born into the rich oral culture of India.” “I have been deeply and permanently influenced by that. I grew up listening to a vast variety of folk stories, tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana, and have been fascinated by the story-telling techniques of the Pandavani. Even our folksongs are voices telling stories. All this colours my palette in conscious and unconscious ways,” he explains. According to him, the responsibility of the writer lies in making the reader sit up all night to read. “If you write about characters that you care deeply about then the reader will be mesmerised; that is the responsibility of the writer.” Ray says that he had to be “particularly careful” about the 10 distinct voices in his novel, ranging from 19th century rural Irish voices to those of Billy Swint of 1960s New York and Kush Mitra of the early 1990s.

Ray took an eight-month sabbatical from his teaching job to immerse himself in Irish literature of 1835-1847 — books, political Kalyan Raypamphlets, newspapers and posters. He said that “later historical research often challenged and corrected contemporary perceptions of events, but I needed to keep in mind that for a novelist, the early estimations, even rumours — especially early rumours — must mark the pigment on the canvas.” The novel is packed with delightful details. “I owed it to my readers to paint the past as vividly and accurately as I could, with its sights and sounds, contemporary opinions and mindsets. So I needed to use numerous books of history, memoirs, and contemporary journals… (I) put in a great deal of effort not to let the research show in the telling of the story…” Grafton Street in Ireland is pointedly described as being paved with wood, whereas most Irish streets were packed with sod. He learnt this tiny fact after “many hours spent often with a magnifying glass in hand peering into photographs of early Victorian-era cityscapes of Dublin, and at Irish landscapes of that period”.

Women are pivotal to the novel, yet they have been described only in terms of their sexuality and the choices they make after becoming pregnant (mostly out of wedlock). Though Maeve’s character develops logically, she comes across women often do in mythology — mostly just strong survivors of circumstances. Though she can read before she is four years old, she is never shown to be doing anything with her literacy. Instead, she swiftly adapts to farming. Ray says that he has been influenced by William Faulkner. Perhaps this slide of realism into myth comes from Faulkner.

Migrants don’t necessarily have the leisure to recall stories, occupied as they are in putting their lives together, making new friends, learning new language, culture. No Country tells their story. In an interview he gave to his publishers, Ray said, “I consider this story to be a seismic shrug, a novel that consists of individual migrations. These are stories about people looking for a country, a place where they could set roots but find it nowhere.” Ray too is a migrant, dividing his time between Kolkata and America. Paradoxically, No Country does not read like a story told by a migrant. Though I read the novel in two sittings, I remained dissatisfied with the outsider’s perspective.

Post 9/11, a noticeable shift in contemporary literature, particularly fiction, is an excessive stress on identities, akin to ghettoisation of literature according to ethnic, regional and religious identities, and literary criticism has always been preoccupied with genres. But No Country is refreshingly rich in multi-cultural diversity and is able to bringing out the commonality amongst migrants.

Kalyan Ray No Country Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2014. Pb. pp. 560. Rs. 599 

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014 

Angarey and the Progressive Writers Movement

Angarey and the Progressive Writers Movement

Angarey, RupaThis year has been marked by the publication of Rakhshanda Jalil’s thesis by OUP – A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu and two translations of Angarey, first published in 1932 only to be banned.  ( Here is a link to the introduction by Snehal Shangvi of the Penguin Books India edition, an extract published in Scroll.in on 15 June 2014: http://scroll.in/article/666833/why-fundamentalists-got-this-urdu-book-banned-when-it-appeared-in-1932/ ) The writers associated with this movement were people who wrote not necessarily for the joy of crafting great literature; they wrote because they saw, and were quick to seize, the great inescapable link between literature and socio-political change. Literature for them was a valuable tool in the cause of nation-building and social transformation. ( Jalil, p. xx) With the publication of Angarey the definition of forward-looking underwent a sea-change and the epithets of irreligious, godless, sacrilegious, even blasphemous, came to be used for a radical, new sort of writing. Many of these writers ( and their readers) were conversant with Western literary styles and English-language authors. It is also important to remember that the glory days of the PWM also spanned the most tumultous period of modern Indian history — Gandhi’s call to Satyagraha, India’s response to the rise of fascism, Nehru’s Muslim mass contact programme, Gandhi’s second civil disobedience movement, the Second World War and its impact on India, the Bengal famine, the rise of Telengana, tebhaga, and other movements, Independence, Partition, and the communal disturbances that scarred the nation. ( Jalil, p. xxviii) Some of the ideas that need to be mentioned regularly are that though Urdu literature was not being written by Muslims along, the great majority of nineteenth-century Urdu writers were indeed Muslims.

Here is a list of the major writers and poets associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement ( as listed in Dr Jalil’s thesis, Annexure I)

Abdul Alim, Abdul Haq, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Ahmed Ali, Akhtar Husain Raipuri, Akhtarul Iman, Ale Ahmad Suroor, Ali Sardar Jafri, Asrarul Haq Majaz ( his nephew is the poet and lyricist, Javed Akhtar), Ehtesham Husain, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Fikr Taunsvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Hajra Begum, Hasrat Mohani, Hayatullah Ansari, Ibrahim Jalees, Ismat Chugtai, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Josh Maliabadi, K.M.Ashraf, Kaifi Azmi, Kanhaiyyalal Kapoor, Khawaja Ahmad Abbas, Krishan Chandar, Mahmuduzzafar Khan, Majnun Gorakhpuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Mulk Raj Anand, Mumtaz Husain, Mohammad Hasan, Niyaz Haider, Premchand, Qateel Shifai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Rashid Jehan, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Rifat Sarosh, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sagar Nizami, Sahir Ludhianvi, Sajjad Zaheer, Salam Machchlishahri, Sibte Hasan, Syed Muttalibi Faridabadi, Upnedranath Ashk, Wamiq Jaunpuri and Zaheer Kashmiri.

Both the translations published in April 2014 are readable. Fortunately these now exist and are readily available, a delightful Angaareybouquet of riches for readers. Yet there is a vast difference in the quality of translations, and would be of valuable to interest to translators and academics. The notes on translations by Snehal Shangvi, Khalid Alvi and Vibha S. Chauhan are worth reading.

These are books that will be treasured and should find a place in every library, institution and be read by many.

The only question that I wonder about is how much were these writers influenced by the Irish literary movement of the early twentieth century?

Rakhshanda Jalil A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 490. Rs. 1495

Angarey translated from the Urdu by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi. Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 105. Rs. 195

Angaarey translated by Snehal Shangvi. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 170. Rs. 499

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel.  It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.

A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.

It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)

Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.

Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.

The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate  about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.

A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.

                                     *****
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )

Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.

Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?

I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.

Q3 Where was the research for this book done?

Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.

Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist,  Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.

The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!

As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.

Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?

Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.

Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?

Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.

Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history?  Would  A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?

It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?

Q8  There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?

I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.

Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?

I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.

Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?

Mine.

Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.

No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!

Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?

Pakistani. I’ve only been British for 6 months!

13 April 2014

Mahesh Dattani, “Me and my plays”

Mahesh Dattani, “Me and my plays”

Mahesh DattaniI didn’t have an audience, because I didn’t have a language. The kind of text-based theatre I wanted to do could not be possible without a language. …The relationship between a playwright and an actor is a complex one. Both rely on one another for their artistic fulfilment….

Mahesh Dattani’s introduction/essay in Me and My Plays is worth reading. It is a reflection and a comment about the evolution of contemporary theatre in India, especially of original English-language plays. He talks about how he fell in love with theatre, his attempts at acting, and discovering his talent for writing plays, his observations on theatre and acting. This is a slim volume consisting of two recent plays — “Why did I leave my Purdah?” and The Big Fat City” that are powerful to read even in print. I wonder what it would be like to watch the performances.

Last week on Facebook, another noted theatrewallah, Sudhanva Deshpande wrote about Ben Rivers talk on Playback Theatre. Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre approach used in over 60 countries as a tool for community building, trauma response and cultural activism. In a Playback event, audience members share personal stories, and watch as a team of actors and musicians transform these accounts into improvised theatre pieces. Playback Theatre responds to the fundamental human need to share one’s story and have it heard and honored. Ben Rivers is a British-Australian writer, educator and drama therapist specializing in the use of applied theatre for community mobilization and cultural activism.

I could not help but mull over the “playback theatre” technique that Mahesh Dattani has applied to these two plays. Theatre performances tend to be cathartic experiences if the audience is willing. The stories about Partition or about life in Bombay/Mumbai may be scripted for a certain cast of characters but they will rake up personal stories and thoughts by those witnessing a performance. It would be fascinating to hear a live conversation on theatre between Mahesh Dattani, Sudhanva Deshpande and Ben Rivers, much along the lines of this televised conversation of Peter O’Toole, Orson Welles, Huw Wheldon (the host) and veteran actor Ernest Milton discussing Hamlet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smMa38CZCSU. One topic, renowned practitioners of the craft and much becomes evident through a good conversation.

Read Me and My Plays .

Mahesh Dattani Me and My Plays Penguin Books, Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 248. Rs. 246.

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

DNA, translations(My article on translations in 2013, trends and changes has been published this morning in DNA, 20 Dec 2013. I cannot find the link online but here is a clipping of it sent via email to me.  I am also c&p the text below. )

Cobalt Blue2013 was a positive year for publishing, certainly for translations that were visible. Translations were on the DSC Prize South Asian Literature 2014 shortlist that mainly focuses on general fiction in English, not in a separate category— Anand’s Book of Destruction (Translated from Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan) and Benyamin’s Goat Days (Translated from Malayalam by Joseph Koyippalli). Other translations that left an impression upon literary conversations of the year are — Shamsur Rahman’s The Mirror of Beauty ( translated from Urdu by the author); Habib Tanvir’s Memoir ( translated by Mahmood Farooqui); Sunanda Sankar’s A Life Long Ago ( translated from Bengali by Anchita Ghatak) and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto); Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain (Translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck); Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum); Syed Rafiq Husain’s The Mirror of Wonders ( translated from Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Malarvan’s War Journey: Diary of a Tamil Tiger ( translated by M Malathy); Mohinder Singh Sarna’s Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition ( translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna); Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart ( translated from Hindi by Ira Pande) and an anthology of New Urdu Writings: From India & Pakistan ( edited by Rakhshanda Jalil). In fact Penguin India’s best fiction title for the year was The Mirror of Beauty, according to Managing Editor, Sivapriya. She adds, “At Penguin we are developing a focused translations list that spans contemporary texts and modern classics and older classics.”

HarperCollins has an imprint dedicated to translations from Indian literature—Harper Perennial. Minakshi Thakur, Sr. Commissioning Editor says that “The translation market grew marginally in terms of value in 2013, but in terms of numbers it grew considerably. Harper did 10 translations as opposed to the 5 or 6 we were doing every year until 2012, from 2014 we’ll do about 12 titles every year.” Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu “Translations from Indian languages to English, from one Indian language to others and from world languages to Indian languages is definitely on the rise. Personally I have sold more translation rights and published more translations this year than before. Good Indian language authors are in demand like never before.” This assessment is corroborated by Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan who says that “When we decided to do translations some twenty years ago, it was a very new phenomenon. We did translations from English to Hindi, Indian languages to Hindi and international languages to Hindi (without English as a medium).”

Another interesting aspect of translations too has successful publishing collaborations like that of making short fiction by Ayfer Tunc, Turkish writer and editor of Orhan Pamuk, The Aziz Bey Incident and other stories. It has been translated into Tamil and Hindi, but the English edition of this book is not available in India, all though it was released at the London Book Fair 2013. According to Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette, “the books sell well enough without being blockbusters —they were conceived with mid- range sales of 3k-5k like all translations are, and most of the time they tend to deliver that.”

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